A studio visit with Paolo Arao by Nick Naber
Paolo and I met at SPRING BREAK ART SHOW in 2015. He was visiting a booth where I had work up, and we chatted for the first time. We had been friends on Instagram before that point, and it was nice to put a face and personality to the paintings that I’d seen. The first time I’d visited Paolo was in the summer of 2016, a few days after I moved back to Brooklyn. His studio was by the Navy Yard, and he was working on a yearlong painting series called Yearbook in which he painted one painting a day for the entire year. And each 12 x 9 inch painting was completed in one hour. A few months passed and he visited me in my studio, and then I went back and visited him again, this time in a new studio in Crown Heights where he had started a different yearlong painting series. Paolo is now in Bed Stuy and is approaching the end of the same series that I had seen in Crown Heights, but the paintings have changed quite a bit from what I had seen over the summer.
Visiting Paolo’s studio is always something new, not just because he’s moved spaces frequently but because he’s so prolific. When I visited him this time, I was taken by the twelve paintings that he had on his wall. It reminded me so much of the Yearbook paintings that I had seen on my first visit to him in the summer of 2016. There was something different from the works I had seen over the summer too. Paolo’s interest in textiles and sewing is now more evident in his newer work. As I look at the paintings I start to notice the seams on the support. They are imperfect and in spots the linen is left bare. These new paintings are vulnerable and open in a different way than his earlier Yearbook works.
This past year he’s been working on a series of 52 paintings in conjunction with making longer-term work. These 52 paintings are compelling for many reasons. Similar to his Yearbook series, Paolo has set up a specific set of rules to create them. He makes one painting per week; the painting is completed in one day; and they’re each done on an 18 x 15 inch support. In discussing how this affects his results we looked at some of the earlier works from this series. I discovered that the works from the early part of this year looked more like larger versions of his Yearbook paintings. Over the course of the year they have become something else. And there appear to be multiple groups of series that have developed within the overall project. In most recent works, he has begun to stitch together pieces of linen to reinforce a grid, albeit a soft-edged and not quite perfect grid. With the slight change in his surface support came a change in the way the work was carried out, the color palettes, the painted lines, the edges, and the movement on the surface.
I begin to wonder about the way he’s applying the paint to these surfaces. And I‘m curious about why he’d go through the trouble of sewing these supports and then in many ways completely disregarding the physical lines he’s created. For him, it becomes a play between the paint and the physical nature of the support. He’s resisting the grid, and pushing his abstractions outside the physical limitations of their supports.
Paolo uses an intentionally uncomfortable yet playful combination of color; they’re odd, pretty, high key, muted, and at times, off-putting. On the raw linen the typically bright or garish colors become muted. He doesn’t aim for his canvases to be pretty, in that he doesn’t want his work to only be about pleasing and harmonious colors. He is continually obfuscating what one would say is a beautiful color by pairing it with a color that may be perceived as ugly. His use of color in combination with the geometric forms he employs leads you deeper into these works because they are in many instances queer and disorienting.
In a majority of these paintings there is a specific intention not to cover the entire support with paint. It was originally uncomfortable for him to leave so much of the linen bare. In some instances you can feel that struggle. He works on a new painting with 12 weeks of previous paintings behind him on the wall, allowing him to work through the different tensions and idiosyncrasies inherent in each work. This allows him to riff on older work, or to improve things that he didn’t like in previous iterations. The variation between the works is subtle, but evident.
We talked about knowing when a painting is finished. His self-imposed time constraints force him to be completed in one day, however, he doesn’t stop thinking about the completed painting after it’s done. The canvases that he makes on a weekly basis have an influence on each other, but also allow Paolo the opportunity to "fix" things that he didn’t like in the previous painting without overcomplicating it.
This idea to make both the Yearbook series and his current 52 week series arose out of a desire to not overthink and overwork a painting. He devised the idea to work quickly on a painting to help him loosen up, but also to experiment with and focus on his own painting language and technique. In many ways both of these series have seeped into his overall practice. He is able to reference and re-appropriate from an encyclopedic volume of past work when concentrating on other paintings that take a few weeks to complete.
In our visit we talked about the benefits to making a lot of work. The fact that there is always another painting waiting to be made the following week frees Paolo from the constraints or difficulties of any one work. And the amount of failed paintings are equally as important as successful paintings, because it gives him the motivation and desire to keep coming back to the studio, to keep pushing his process and to keep making.
Paolo will be going to the Vermont Studio Center for a 4-week residency in January. He intends to make a lot of works on paper in addition to experimenting further with sewn textiles and painting. He will have a forthcoming two-person show opening at the end of March 2018 at c2c project space in San Francisco.